Magazine article The Spectator

In the Library-With a Pen

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Library-With a Pen

Article excerpt


by Harriet Waugh

Bloomsbury, L14.99, pp. 217

The conflict between historical truth and the biographer's preconceptions has been the central theme of such outstanding novels as Margaret Kennedy's The Heroes of Clone and A.S. Byatt's Possession. Harriet Waugh's The Chaplet of Pearls, if not quite in that class, is convincingly and laudably concerned with `going into battle on behalf of Truth and Integrity in the Written Word', as one of her characters selfjustifyingly claims. The target of this campaign is Hilary Greep, a young deconstructionist feminist who is writing a biography of the Victorian novelist Charlotte Yonge. She sees her subject as a mere floor-plan on which she can impose her preconceived design. She intends to establish that Charlotte Yonge was sexually abused as a child by her father, was Keble's mistress and had a lesbian relationship with her friend Marianne Dyson.

Her project comes to the attention of a society of elderly admirers of the works of Charlotte Yonge who call themselves `the Chaplet of Pearls' after one of Miss Yonge's novels. Here I must declare an interest, as I am a member of the real-life Charlotte M. Yonge Society, on which Harriet Waugh's fictional Chaplet of Pearls group is obviously based. The number of members, the themes of papers read to the Society, even the Christian names of some of the members of the fictional group are identical with those of the real society, whose members will recognise some of each other's personality quirks in those attributed to Harriet Waugh's imaginary group. But if this is to some extent a roman a clef, the keys also open the doors to several other areas of literary politics - book prizes, biographical ethics, authors' societies, libraries - as well as to the prime quarry of feminist deconstruction. Harriet Waugh has amused herself with all these coteries and institutions, concealing a serious judgment under an effervescence of mockery.

The members of the Chaplet of Pearls, indignant at Hilary Greep's forthcoming libel on their heroine - `Why should Charlotte M. Yonge's real life, thought and feelings be distorted for the venal advantage of some sneering smug young academic? …

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